Make a Decision — In a crisis, no decision implies indecision. Waiting for perfect information before making a decision is risk immunity, not risk aversion. Recovery from a wrong decision is still likely to be better than no-decision at all.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Frank Prautzsch, CEO of Birmingham Technologies, Inc. (BT), and President of Velocity Technology Partners, LLC. For the past eight years, his company, Velocity Technology Partners, has led a Technology Scouting team for the U.S. Government responsible for evaluating technologies, business practices and use cases across start-ups and large primes seeking government business. His pioneering, strategic, and technological mindset has led to leadership successes and technical breakthroughs across military and civilian experiences and offers the U.S. government and corporate worlds a unique balance of 20 years of active duty service with the U.S. Army Signal Corps and 22 years of high-tech leadership with Fortune 100/500, defense and commercial companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
By birth, I was the first American citizen in my family. My parents, older brother and sister had arrived through Ellis Island with a cubic meter of keepsakes in a trunk, $50 in cash, and four train tickets to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. My uncle had settled in that area after WWII on a farm immigrant program. There was little in Germany to resettle. With hope, pride, and nothing to lose, they felt it a privilege to come to America.
My family lived with strong values, huge work ethics, frugality, and a strong will to not only be Americans but to be proud Americans.
My family pooled all of its resources and bought 50% of a struggling dairy farm. The catch was that we also had to operate it. Between early morning chores, no weekends, no holidays, and a full school course load, my entire childhood was shaped by that dairy farm.
My closest friend lived more than two miles away, so what little playtime I had involved keeping myself entertained. I found my outlet in puttering with wire, metal, gasoline, wood, and old farm implements inside of an old potato cellar. As I got bigger there was some pressure to play sports, but even then, I would practice at home. My childhood days started at 4 AM and ended after homework late at night. But I wouldn’t trade a day of my childhood for anything.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Since 2010, I have supported DoD and Federal customers with unvarnished and, I hope, insightful consults on lots of technologies with focus areas in space, position/navigation/timing, networks, wireless services, cyber, IoT and M2M, robotics, unmanned systems, energy, additive manufacturing, and AI/ML.
In 2019, I took these skills and abilities to assume the CEO position for Birmingham Technologies Inc. In this role, I oversee a unique mix of individuals with in-depth experience in engineering sciences tied to nanophysics. Our work covers verticals in thermionic energy harvesting, bio-health, 4D nanoelectronics printing, space/aerospace nanomaterials, and propulsion.
As an example, we are prototyping energy harvesting at the nano-level. These units can charge a mobile or fixed device or system to operate for years on mobile — without power storage and nuclear isotopes.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
My parents instilled a strong academic discipline in me. I excelled at football and basketball. While those things gave me options for scholarships from several schools, I made the U.S. Military Academy at West Point my goal. West Point is more than a textbook education. It is an education in life, the limits of human performance and leadership.
As a geek, a leader, and a leader of geeks, my focus was on supporting the Army with networks, telephony, satellite communications, and navigation. That all culminates in a proud and illuminating career in the Signal Corps.
Since I was also fluent in German, the Army found it useful to assign me to Germany during the Cold War. Being a bilingual communicator working the defense of Europe exposed me to a variety of issues and missions. In the event of war, units were responsible for the United States Army Europe Headquarters’ tactical communications. Failure was definitely not an option.
I was later selected to lead a visionary new satellite initiative, which became the global space-based communications capability for Army deployments worldwide. Satellite communications became my livelihood, and soon I was on deployments from Germany supporting Presidential visits, natural and political crisis events, military exercises, and armed conflicts.
After Command of an Army Area Signal Unit in Germany, I went to Naval Postgraduate School to obtain my Masters in C3 Systems. I was assigned to the Pentagon, where I was responsible for all Army space and navigation procurements. As the Cold War started to thaw, I was responsible for Conventional Forces Europe troop reductions related to the Signal Corps. To my surprise, Saddam Hussein had other plans, and my planning and technical skills were needed to devise, execute and maintain all communications for joint operations in Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
At the end of the Cold War, the Army moved me to the Pacific. I was tasked with planning and executing the communication systems for all joint operations in the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. A second tour in the Pentagon placed me in a unique position of authority for satellite communications and navigation. I was assigned to lead the development of a huge $42B, 10-year national satellite communications program. Every element of this foundational work remains at the heart of today’s programs of record and on orbit systems which support our warfighters.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
While I was still learning some of the finer points of the realities of the chain of command, I was awestruck one day as a young Lieutenant. I was leading a real-world deployment of satellite equipment when I got a direct call tasking from JCS. Five levels of the chain of command were excluded from any involvement on my deployment.
From the time I left Europe on a tactical cargo aircraft to an undisclosed base in the Middle East, I lived with extremely high operational security. Even en route, only the pilot knew our destination. Once we got there, I spent 13 months on station without any form of external communications.
This operation really demonstrated to me the military’s ability to coordinate, influence, and protect. If lives and intelligence are on the line, the military’s systems, processes, procedures, and disciplined personnel will carry the day.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
In October of 1980, one of my young satellite teams deployed to El Asnam, Algeria. After having no more than six months of training, these young soldiers were thrown into a major calamity. This city of 1 million inhabitants, in the high mountains, was leveled by a Richter 7.2 earthquake. More than 300,000 residents were homeless, 9000 were injured, and 3000 souls perished. Accompanied by three combat engineer companies and six medical teams, we spent countless hours of telecommunications work for logistics, command and control, NGO coordination, and hospital assistance.
For 13 days and nights, we worked to stabilize the city, care for the wounded, account for the dead, feed the hungry, and clear debris. For most of these troops, this was their first exposure to a real-world operation with catastrophic death and suffering. Many still considered the vividness of this deployment worse than a war. They are all my heroes. Everyone worked as a team. Adaptation and innovation during that chaos was the norm, not the exception. To this day, I remain proud and incredibly moved by their bravery and sacrifice for other humans. Matthew 5:9 — “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.”
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
A hero does the unexpected, at the right time, asked or unasked to do something greater than him/herself, to set forward success in a mission of unthinkable consequence.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
The military taught me how to be a leader and how not to be a manager. In my post-military tenure with aerospace primes and in consultation with commercial companies, it became clear that corporate leadership stumbled on making decisions. They focused attention on statistics, gate reviews and sales. Managers count beans; leaders make bean soup.
I sat in countless board meetings where the answer was “get more information” or “let’s check next week.” Seldom did a senior leader say, “No…the dog won’t hunt” or “here is what we are going to do…” Often more money was spent in collective decision-making than the salaries of all of the assembled staff.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
While my response to this question may be unexpected, I would have to say that my high school physics teacher Bob Carmody, changed my life. We are all shaped by others when we are young, and I certainly was by Bob. He made science and math fun and real. He encouraged experimentation and explained the world around us in exciting ways. He was a tough grader and tester, but fair and most convincing. Bob was also the assistant football and basketball coach. His mentorship continued on the court and football field. Whether it was pre-game prayer, observing game errors, or rebuilding my confidence after a loss, he helped understand academics and school, and most importantly, life.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
A crisis is a Medusa that can bite you in many ways. In large part, a crisis involves danger, trouble, or intense difficulty either from an external stimulus or from within an organization. A crisis can also focus on irritating or difficult decisions with consequences that must be managed along any branch or sequel.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Business owners and leaders must build resilience with adequate reserves for the continuation of operations, build a portfolio of secondary suppliers and supply chain functions for all needs. A working knowledge of formal and informal leaders and managers who will ride out a crisis with you, without wavering. While a cadet at West Point, I was always exposed to a unique phrase, “Mission First-People Always.” As long as you focus on the corporate mission and take care of your employees, companies stand a far better chance of weathering crises. If everyone leans forward, rather than back and has confidence in their organization, many crises will just be a corporate “speed bump.”
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
It is essential to communicate above and beyond. Employees get anxious, acknowledge rumors and perceptions, and modulate their angst into not just the company but into their families. It is essential to be transparent and keep everyone informed. With the pervasiveness of media channels available today, companies can choose to use social media as a constructive tool or a crisis amplifier.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
- Arbitration and mediation during discord
- Steady, unemotional communications
- Transparency in information and some decisions
- Strategic insight tied to actions the company takes during the crisis
- Illumination of employee purpose in the company (I see far too many companies where the workers have no idea of how they do or will impact humanity; they know they have to make a part)
- Employee family support and stability (heavy lean on HR and benefits)
- Intense strategy work to determine change, lost or new markets
- Intense strategy work to see if a crisis can bring new opportunities (during and post-crisis)
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Gen. Colin Powell comes to mind for me immediately. While on staff at the Pentagon, I had a few opportunities to attend “Tank” meetings. These are meetings of the Senior Service Leaders and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Experts are brought in as needed. When all are in attendance, the Tank session does not end until a decision is reached. Every decision at that altitude has major consequences for the mission. Most of these events resulted from a world crisis or an internal “crisis” within the Defense Department.
Gen. Powell was a master at problem identification and understanding and arbitrating the problem or issue’s motives. When it was time to decide, he took votes and comments from the Service Chiefs. Still, Gen. Powell would get up and walk the perimeter of the Tank and stare every attendee in the eyes for acknowledgment of the decision, additional arguments, or heaven forbid, dissenting views. He decentralized the decision and made everyone a stakeholder of the crisis.
Once all involved “broke huddle” from a Tank Session, there was an implied unity of effort, and all voices were heard.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I was the Vice President for one of the companies in my resume. A merger and acquisition occurred with the condition that the acquired company would bring its vice president. Despite performance metrics, I was not retained. At the time, I was angry and embarrassed.
I opted to establish my own consulting company and was immediately hired back for technology consulting and advice, which included the company’s mission area that relieved me. I held no grudge and had no remorse.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Communicate — Organizations that fail to communicate drive emotional anxiety, anger, misplaced perceptions, and irrational actions. COVID-19 concerns are a classic example. It is essential to advise and interpret key health issues and warnings with the employees. It is vital to share analysis, remedies, studies, and technology with the organization. Within our office environment, we have 14 antiviral air handling units. This investment was symbolic in the company’s concern for the health and safety of its employees. As of the time of this writing, no employees have tested positive for COVID.
- Maintain Command and Control — The Leader has to be the rock of the organization. It is essential that the leader be strong, unemotional, and never be the weakest link under any circumstance. Often, military leaders that could not control the pressures of mission execution that showed themselves as incapable of making a decision (even if it’s wrong), they usually fail or get relieved.
- Make a Decision — In a crisis, no decision implies indecision. Waiting for perfect information before making a decision is risk immunity, not risk aversion. Recovery from a wrong decision is still likely to be better than no-decision at all.
- Make Lemonade — While in a crisis, determine the trajectories and opportunities that can arise following the crisis. This requires the development of meaningful strategies, tactics and superior external communications with customers and employees. Great companies capitalize on crises such as the 1929 and 2008 recessions. It is an opportunity to make aggressive organizational changes and less expensive investments or acquisitions against a strategic goal.
- Lead by Example — Lean forward and perform the tasks and conditions that your employees are expected to do. If you can’t or won’t do a task yourself, don’t expect your people to do it. For example, in airborne jump units, the leader exits the plane first. As a brand-new lieutenant in Germany, I had a communications tower section. During my first exposure to the field, I was tasked at installing a 200-foot tower on a hilltop. Building such a framework was no simple task. I was on-site observing the sergeants instructing all on tower construction. One of the most challenging tasks was hammering in massive 4 ft. tall anchor spikes that supported the tower’s guy lines. A young specialist was struggling with pounding in one of these spikes. I arrived in time to get some exercise and picked up the long-handled sledgehammer and reinforced that an officer can also get his/her hands dirty. I gained enormous trust and respect that was earned and not ordained by my rank.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Without a doubt, the most inspiring movement would be to engage in geoengineering solutions to affect climate change seriously. Our planet’s health did not deteriorate naturally, nor will it repair itself naturally. New solutions need to be scaled and commercialized in carbon capture a recycle, algae biofuels and algae soil remediation, new material compounds that respond to pollution, new carbon-neutral, revolutionary energy sources and scientific processes in power, immediate limitations on Nitrogen Trifluoride used in PCB bathing processes, hydrogen augmented coal combustion and expansion of hybrid and EV transportation with green energy sourcing.
A second movement should involve disease treatment. Our means of treating diseases and pandemic events are Cro-Magnon. The time has come to shift to tailored immunotherapy treatments and a full-court press to cure cancer and other critical viruses and bacteria. Our immunization processes averaged across a large population are, in many cases, ineffective against new strains. Personalized vaccines can treat inherited diseases and act as an annual prophylactic impacting human health and longevity.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Gary Sinise. Gary is a remarkable actor who has been honored with numerous acting and theater awards. Yet and above all, he is an enormous American patriot. He is front and center with Veterans and wounded warrior programs. Volunteers thankless hours for those who have served and heads a rock group that donates proceeds to the military. His foundation has raised more than $30M for veterans and wounded. In 2015, he was unanimously selected for the U.S. Military Academy’s highest honor to bestow upon a civilian, The Sylvanus Thayer Award. Usually reserved for statesmen, Sinise joined Bob Hope to receive this honor as the only other entertainer. The Commandant of the Marines made him an honorary Marine. He is also an Honorary Navy Chief Petty Officer. What drives a person to be so selflessly committed to military causes? I want to know and also honor him with dinner.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.